All this week, we’re taking a look at the past, present, and future of Peak TV, the current, overabundant TV golden age in which we live.
In the transition from the Golden Age of Television to the era of Peak TV, there hasn’t been a precipitous drop in quality. Shows like Fargo, The Americans, Mr. Robot, Better Call Saul, Silicon Valley, Master of None and Bojack Horseman can compete with the likes of The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. The problem with Peak TV is not a dearth of great shows; it’s that there are too many great shows. What among those great shows ultimately floats to the surface tends to be based less on the quality of the series and more on external factors: The time slot; the network; the marketing budget; and media coverage.
Unfortunately, many of the best TV series during the Peak TV era never manage to break through. Not enough critics champion them; they don’t gain cult followings on Netflix; and they seem destined to fade into television history. But let’s champion these under-seen series, some of them ongoing, some no longer with us but worth catching up with. Because in many cases, the shows you aren’t watching are just as good as the ones you are.
Rectify (SundanceTV, 2013 – )
Burbling quietly beneath the surface of Peak TV, the graceful Rectify heads into its fourth season later this fall despite having earned less than 200,000 overnight viewers a week. Skillfully avoiding the plot-chewing storylines, shocking deaths, and surprising twists that have characterized much of the Peak TV era, Rectify has nevertheless managed to survive thanks to a small but devoted audience committed to a lyrically written, small-scale human drama set in a backwoods Georgia town. The series comes from Ray McKinnon (Sons of Anarchy, Mud), who brings his laconic style of acting to the pace of Rectify, the story of a man named Daniel Holden (Aiden Young) who must put his life back together after newly discovered DNA evidence springs him from prison 19 years after being convicted for the rape and murder of his girlfriend. With a second chance at life, Daniel sees a world he never thought he’d see again with wide eyes and a new perspective, but the past — and the possibility of a retrial — continues to haunt him. Daniel is gentle and kind, but there’s a darkness underneath the surface, and his family and friends know neither whether to trust him nor whether he committed the crime of which he was originally accused. To the series’ credit, viewers don’t know whether Daniel is guilty or not, either, and we view Daniel’s actions with the same sense of hope and skepticism. Rectify is one of this decade’s best dramas, but thanks to Peak TV, it may never be recognized as such.
In the Flesh (BBC America, 2013 – 2014)
The massive popularity of The Walking Dead inspired a number of new zombie shows. Some (iZombie, The Returned) are better than others (Z Nation, Fear the Walking Dead), the BBC’s In the Flesh (airing on BBC America stateside) stands out as the best of the bunch. The brilliant twist: In the Flesh takes place in a world where a cure has been discovered for the zombie infection, but the cure doesn’t rid the zombies of their undead status, only of their symptoms. With a little make-up, however, they can continue to function as regular members of society, albeit ones who never need to eat, can survive physical traumas, and who often carry around wounds from their zombie days that will never heal. In the Flesh is not a typical zombie drama. It uses the zombie, always a versatile monster, to make a political statement. Here the undead have recovered their pre-outbreak personalities, but reintegrating them into society presents a challenge, particularly in small towns where the citizens continue to view the “partially dead” with fear and skepticism. The zombies are treated as outsiders, forced from one community to another, never finding acceptance. In the Flesh is a slow-burning drama, largely interested in exploring the prejudices of rural Britain — and tying them into the immigration debate. In the wake of the Brexit vote, the issues raised in the 2013 series have never been more prescient and, in 2016, more relevant to the ongoing immigration debate in the United States.
The Hour (2011 – 2012)
Promoted originally as a period drama akin to Mad Men, BBC America’s The Hour possessed a similar flair for period details (here, 1950’s London), but the subject material was vastly different. Starring Ben Whishaw (Q in the Bond films), Romola Garai and The Wire‘s Dominic West, the 2011 series is as much a Hitchcockian mystery as it is an examination of cultural politics. The Hour uses its newsroom characters to explore the transition from print to television news, and in many important ways, that transition mirrors that of our recent transition from television to online news. There’s also an intriguing murder mystery at the center of The Hour, but it’s largely used as a means to take paranoid and distrustful look at the government’s institutions of authority where intelligence agencies and the media intersect. There’s plenty of vice and promiscuity to keep Mad Men fans satiated, but the themes of The Hour are more akin to those found in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or the brilliant British miniseries State of Play. Though a hit with critics and awards organizations, The Hour never caught on with viewers already confronted with too much television. Sadly the series became a casualty of Peak TV and ended after two seasons with one of the most devastating and little-seen cliffhanger finales in recent memory.
The Girlfriend Experience (2016 – )
Starz has been coughing up casualties to Peak TV since its Party Down days, but to its credit, the premium cable outfit seems determined to remain competitive by putting out quality dramas that combine good writing, great acting, and salacious subject material. Thus far, only Power and to a lesser degree, Outlander, have broken out, while well-reviewed shows like Ash vs. Evil Dead and Flesh and Blood continue to exist on the periphery. Maybe its best show, so far, has been The Girlfriend Experience, itself based on a little-seen 2009 Steven Soderbergh film whose $700,000 box-office doesn’t exactly scream television franchise. Nevertheless, co-creators and co-writers Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz have taken a similar premise — a high-end call girl meeting the challenges of her clients and her work, here a prestigious law-firm internship — and made it more accessible without sacrificing theme or Soderbergh’s spare, sterile aesthetic. The television series is most interested in exploring power and control, and the ways in which Christine (Riley Keogh) uses her sexuality to exert those qualities over the wealthy men who hold positions above her. Using both her wits and her body, Christine is able to level the playing field, but what’s as captivating about her actions is the psychology behind them. Questions abound, for instance, about whether Christine exhibits the character traits of a sociopath. What drives Christine, and what makes her think that she’ll feel any less alone than her clients if she’s able to amass all the money and power they wield? Averaging just 230,000 viewers a week, Starz waited a month after its first season ended its run but eventually rewarded its critical praise with a second season.
Catastrophe (2015 – )
While Netflix continues to dominate the Peak TV Era, streaming services like Hulu and Amazon Prime are left to fight over the few remaining viewers. Amazon has found some success with Transparent and The Man in the High Castle, but the show with potentially the broadest appeal has yet to break through. In the works before FX’s You’re the Worst — another Peak TV series barely floating on the surface — Catastrophe is also an anti-romcom romantic comedy, only its two main characters are 10 years older than those on You’re the Worst. Nevertheless, they approach the responsibilities of adulthood — child rearing, weight gain, office politics, and diminished libidos — in a similarly immature way. They fight. Oh, man. Do they fight. Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, who created and star in Catastrophe, turn arguing into an art, finding intimacy in bickering. The chemistry between Delaney and Horgan is remarkable. Every barbed insult, every explosion of anger, and every display of frustration is somehow brimming with affection, but the show also hits upon the realities of marriage, sex and parenting in painful and painfully funny ways that make the comedy every bit as uncomfortable as it is hilarious.
Red Oaks (2015 – )
Another Amazon series, Red Oaks — executive produced by David Gordon Green — is to ’80s summer camp movies what Netflix’s Stranger Things is to Spielberg and John Carpenter. Starring Craig Roberts (Submarine), Dirty Dancing‘s Jennifer Grey (somehow old enough to realistically be playing the mom of a college student), Paul Reiser, and Richard Kind, Red Oaks is a coming-of-age comedy about a college student working at a tennis camp during the summer. Part Summer School, part Wonder Years and part Dazed and Confused, the Joe Gangeic series is set in the ’80s, where Roberts — playing an awkward, bumbling Woody Allen-esque character — is trying to find himself while juggling a townie girlfriend, his affection for the daughter of a wealthy client, and his decisions about what he wants to do for the rest of his life. The series is light on comedy, light on pathos, and sometimes aimless, but it’s somehow much better than the sum of its parts, even when it resorts to a body-swapping episode (the idea of its other exec producer, Steven Soderbergh). Despite the fact that almost no one has heard of Red Oaks, the deep-pocketed Amazon has even seen fit to renew the series for a second season, which will premiere in November.
Arguably, Peak TV has taken a bigger toll on network television than it has anywhere else. Network television is more beholden to ratings, there’s stiffer competition within each network, and broadcast shows have less time to find a larger audience and maintain it. Saddled with an absolutely terrible title and a worn-out My Fair Lady premise, Selfie didn’t have a shot in hell of surviving after debuting with an uninspired pilot and middling ratings. It’s too bad, too, because Selfie managed to find itself after three or four episodes (after most viewers had already given up on it), and it grew into an incredibly sweet, heartfelt and splendid romantic comedy series that flourished thanks to the chemistry between John Cho and Karen Gillan. The comedy largely disposed of its gimmicky premise early on, and it evolved into an astute examination — and indictment — of our self-obsessed culture, mixing funny observations, clever writing, and a burgeoning romance into one of the few network shows in recent years capable of qualifying for a “cancelled too soon” listicle.
The 13-episode first and only season of Awake is the best candidate in recent years for the best “cancelled too soon” series on the network drama side. In 2010, Kyle Killen debuted Lone Star on Fox and quickly learned what can happen if a creator gets too adventurous on network television. (The show, which had the best reviewed pilot of that television season, was cancelled after two episodes.) Killen followed it up with Awake, which sought to wrap a network-friendly procedural element around a clever, high-concept idea. In the show, a police detective named Michael (Jason Isaacs) is involved in a deadly car crash. After the crash, Michael wakes up and is confronted with two realities: One in which his wife survived the crash, and another in which his son survived. Michael, who alternates between the two realities every time he goes to sleep, has no idea which world is real and which is a fiction his mind created to cope with his tragedy. The viewer, likewise, is left in the dark. The procedural element falls into the gimmicky but fascinating category: Michael uses information he gains from one reality to solve crimes in another reality. The complicated, overarching mythology, however, is a serious mindf*ck that rightfully earned comparisons to Twin Peaks and Inception. Unfortunately, given a late midseason debut and little promotion, Awake never managed to find an audience large enough to earn the series a second season, although the brilliant season finale managed to leave its small viewership immensely satisfied.
The Honorable Woman (2014)
The Peak TV era is not only characterized by too much quality television, but by the level of darkness on many of those shows. After suffering through death and torture on series like Game of Thrones, Homeland, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, viewers often don’t have the capacity for more suffering. I think that’s why shows like NBC’s Hannibal and FX’s brilliant The Bridge didn’t last as long as they should have. Another of those series that might have broken through the surface 10 years ago is The Honorable Woman, an eight-part political spy thriller starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and written and directed Hugo Blick, the man behind the equally depressing The Shadow Line. The Honorable Woman sees Nessa Stein, a businesswoman attempting to connect the West Bank with fiber optic cables, get caught up in the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, between MI:5 and the CIA, between her Jewish family and the peace in the Middle East she’s trying to forge. It’s a wickedly smart, densely plotted spy thriller that could easily be mistaken for a John le Carré adaptation, but it is also intensely bleak, brutally violent, and requires all of a viewer’s attention span. The subject material is so raw and politically touchy that even Jon Stewart seemed to push against enduring the series. Ultimately, it did receive a lot of awards recognition, including four Emmy nominations and a Peabody Award, but unfortunately it earned very few American viewers (less than 100,000 a week) despite the many raves lavished upon The Honorable Woman by critics.